Friday, March 16, 2012

Perfectly Good Peanuts

Do you have a  stash of empty cardboard boxes somewhere in a closet or in the attic, neatly tucked inside each other in descending sizes, like Russian nesting dolls, clutching a cache of polystyrene peanuts?

Here is the typical scenario for me: I receive a package in the mail. While opening it, I subconsciously start humming, "My favorite things," from The Sound of Music, singing the "brown paper packages tied up with strings" line out loud. After the box is open and the initial excitement about the contents has settled, I think to myself, "Hey, this box could be really useful if I ever need to mail something that would fit in it, or if I ever had to pack up all my stuff and move again...". Then I find the perfect spot for it within the 3-D puzzle of used but empty FedEx, flat rate, small household appliance, and other miscellaneous boxes of all different shapes and sizes that are nestled together inside of the box that came with the computer that I am supposed to keep forever in case I ever need to return it.

This week, the newest arrival wouldn't fit. It was exactly the same size as four that I already had, and just a tiny bit bigger and smaller than many others in the collection. The Downsize Challenger voice that is learning to speak up to my genetically influenced Save-it-because-you-might-need-it someday-Self posed the critical question, "Why are you keeping this?"

I couldn't come up with a good reason, other than that I hate wasting stuff.  If something can possibly be reused, then I like to give it the benefit of the doubt. This value has deep roots in my family, and for the most part, I respect and honor it, BUT, all this sorting and moving and cleaning out of households in the past few years has planted the seeds for understanding that just because something might still be useful, it might never ever be useful to ME. So, by keeping something that I am not using, I am actually WASTING!!!!

This realization was liberating. So I broke down the boxes and took them to the transfer station. My local UPS store collects polystyrene peanuts, air pillows, and even the biodegradable starch based shipping peanuts for re-use. The fact that they keep a jar of complementary Tootsie Rolls on the counter is all the motivation I'll need to keep from collecting shipping supplies in my closet from now on. I found out that there is a glass blower in my town who is also happy to re-use them. Mailboxes Etc. collects them too. If you have a stash like I did, you can use iRecyle or Earth 911 to find a place near you to drop off your peanuts and pillows.

Maybe you can't relate with my tendency toward saving empty boxes and shipping supplies, but I bet you've got something else in your closet that you've been storing for the same reason.  I have some beautiful yarn that I am never going to use because I figured out that knitting frustrates me to no end.  The oboe that I played in Junior High is in excellent condition but has been sitting quietly in the case for 25 years.  I have a lot of books sitting on shelves, already read, unlikely to be opened again. As you look around at the perfectly good but unused things you've got, I encourage you to keep asking yourself, "Why am I keeping this?"  I don't have to be the one to use every useful thing I've got, and neither do you. Finding the person who will is the real challenge to conscientious downsizing.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Just what I always wanted; a big box of wires

There was a fantastic cartoon in The New Yorker on January 16th showing a father and son standing in the doorway to what could easily have been my Opa's utility closet two years ago. The father proudly promises his son that the family collection of A.C. adapters, having long outlasted their gadgets, will someday be passed on to the next generation. The A. C. adapters, with their little cord tails trailing behind, remind me of a mice infestation I once had in my apartment. The son has that kid-perfected blank look on his face, conveying the complete opposite of "This is the most exciting day of my life!"

I made the same face when I was cleaning out Opa's storage closet and came across a box on a shelf, way up high in the deep recesses that had not recently been visited. All capital letters written in black marker told me that it held, "WIRES". It was a large box, and it was full. The majority were VCR and television cords, and in his pre-dementia organizational style, they were neatly coiled and labeled. The red, yellow, and white ends even had little pieces of tape to remind him where they belonged. Having had a lifelong love for cameras and related technology, Opa was a big fan of the VCR when it first came out. During his retirement, he spent many hours editing and copying home videos, (and also taping episodes of The Young and The Restless, if he and Oma happened to have an appointment during that hour.) The year I turned 21, he gave me a video about "my life" and I have a tradition of watching it every year on my birthday. I like watching my brother and sister and self goofing around when we were little kids. I like seeing our family dog wagging her tail. I like listening to Opa's voice superimposed over the old Super-8 films. I will never downsize it.

The box of wires though, needed to go. I had no idea what to do with them, so I piled them all onto his desk and took this picture:
Opa's collection of WIRES

I posted it on Craigslist under "free stuff", not expecting much of a response. I was shocked. A dude named Travis replied immediately, followed by four more people within about twenty minutes. I didn't understand what the big demand was for a box of wires, but a more worldly friend explained that people strip them for copper. I arranged to meet the wire-stripping guy at a public place in broad daylight, but he stood me up. I recognize in retrospect that this might have been for the best. Ultimately, I was running out of time on the condo clean-out and had to donate them to Goodwill. I really hope they recycled them, or hooked them up with Travis, or that they made their way into the hands of some other industrious person.

Have you got e-waste accumulating in your closet, basement, or garage?  How many T.V's are you storing? If you think your loved ones are going to be excited about these treasures after you are dead, guess again. My little collection of A.C. adapters is headed to the local transfer station this week, where they will be transported to a recycling center that breaks them down and recycles the metal. The larger stuff (TV's, VCR's, computer monitors) can also be taken there. There is a charge for disposal, and some people criticize this, but I'd prefer to pay somebody to handle it responsibly now than to store it in the barn for thirty more years.

What will you do with yours? This week's Downsize Challenge is to gather up your e-waste and make final disposition decisions. Your community may have a free e-waste collection day in the spring. Ask around. There are many places that have ongoing collection sites, including some major retail stores that sell electronics. If you are not sure where to go, check out Earth911 or the iRecycle app, search for "e-waste" and plug in your zip code. Don't wait for The New Yorker to feature your family in a cartoon!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The aftermath of upsizing season; catalogues weighing you down?

 What do the catalogues in your mailbox say about you?

The retail world has me profiled as an upscale interior designer-landscaping-gourmet chef with a serious interest in high-end electronics, telescopes, and cosmetics, requiring enough outdoor gear for a quick climb up and down Mt. Everest before a breakfast of mail-order sausages and assorted pears. Well equipped with an array of undergarments of various levels of practicality, I am not only prepared for any possible weather conditions or encounters, but ready to cope with the possible consequences of quick changes in and out of my collection of western riding boots, cross trainers, and four inch spike heels, because I am fully stocked with more orthopedic foot product options than a podiatrist.

Though I am not well-rounded or wealthy enough to be half of the shopper the retail companies want me to be, I will admit to you that I’ve had a longstanding catalogue reading habit. I find the process relaxing and the products interesting, particularly if it's two in the morning and I can't fall asleep but am too tired or stressed out to read any literature of substance. It's the same feeling I have when reading SkyMall in a plane. The number of trendy names that can possibly exist for the color that I call blue can keep me entertained for much longer than it should if I am procrastinating to avoid some other task. There have been times in my life when it's felt pretty terrific to get something in the mail that isn't a bill. At this point, there are many days when it's simply fun to imagine a time and place where people wear clothes other than jeans and tee-shirts, or where the desirability of a living room set isn't defined by the stain resistance of its upholstery. Cheaper than cable and safer than a lot of other more destructive vices, is there any real harm in my tea sipping, window shopping, ‘just looking’ retail voyeurism?

When the sheer volume of mailings started to increase last fall, I decided to take inventory. I deliberately saved each catalogue that we received in November and December. On January first, they weighed in at 24.2 pounds! That's a lot of weight sneaking into the mailbox a few ounces at a time, over a two-month period, resulting in NOT ONE SINGLE PURCHASE and ultimately ending up in the recycling bin.

With all of the downsizing I've been doing, I realize that I've been focusing more of my efforts on household exports than imports, and I've overlooked an important opportunity to eliminate waste at the entry point. It's certainly good to recycle this stuff, but for the sake of trees, ink, and the human and fossil fuel energy involved in transporting all of it to and from my home, it would be better to prevent unnecessary mail from showing up in the first place.

If you should chose to accept, this week's Downsize Challenge is to remove your name from mailing lists. 

Contact Mail Preference Service at Direct Marketing Association for more information. Complete a registration form at  Beware: You will have to exercise much more patience than if you simply placed an order, because although catalogue companies are capable of getting a package to your door within 24 hours, it can take three months to see any change in your mailbox.  You may also directly call the catalogue companies and ask that your name be deleted from their mailing list.

This step won't impact the solicitations you are getting from credit card companies, charitable organizations or political parties, or stop the arrival of mail addressed to a deceased loved one, but I promise to tackle those challenges sometime after I load the 24.2 pounds of catalogues into the back of my car for delivery to the recycling center.

UPDATE TO POST: January 27: I finally sat down today to tackle the registration form for mailing list removal. I found the DMA site to be exasperating...I followed the tip from KellyP recommending and just spent THREE HOURS entering each of my catalogues from the 24.2 pound stack. Fortunately some were duplicates. I have more confidence in this user-friendly site and would recommend it to others who are trying to eliminate the catalogue mailings. If you enter just a few at a time, it won't take you all afternoon.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Downsizing the IN box: Take the time to unsubscribe

Happy New Year! Has anyone mentioned to you that today is THE LAST DAY FOR FREE SHIPPING? I am pretty sure they are crying wolf, because they said the same thing to me yesterday, and the day before that too. Are you planning to take advantage of up to 50% off of outerwear (I thought about it, but the colors left in stock make me look very ill. Maybe you are one of the lucky ones who can wear something the color of my Oma's split-pea soup and still look fantastic). Thinking of booking a flight starting at $39, (one way, to some city in the midwest in the dead of winter?). Perhaps in your neck of the woods, the spring clothing collection is of legitimate interest already, but sundresses are an unwelcome tease to me right now. And come on, how 'Exclusive' can a 'Deal' really be if I am getting the offer, and so are 50 thousand of my closest friends?

If your 'IN' box has been inundated since the onset of upsizing season, the first Downsize Challenge for 2012 is to take some action. Don't just delete the unwanted incoming messages; Take the time to unsubscribe. Scroll down and find the small print at the bottom of the message. Follow the 'click here' directions. You may have options to simply reduce the frequency of mail from a particular sender, or even the opportunity to give some feedback about your choice to be removed from the list completely. After two weeks of taking the few extra seconds to unsubscribe, I can already see a significant difference in the quantity of my email.

If 2012 is your year to minimize, de-clutterize, and change your relationship with stuff, let's keep each other motivated: comment, share your ideas, make suggestions. But, if you are striving instead to pack your attic, basement, closets, and outbuildings with as much stuff as possible, and you hope to leave behind lots of bent paper clips, old keys, fourth grade science fair project posters, chipped knick-knacks, and cut-off toaster cords in junk drawers for your loved ones to sort someday, and this blog is completely irrelevant to you...I won't be offended at all if you unsubscribe, or stop following, or do whatever it takes to avoid The Downsize Challenge, (unless you are directly related to me).